At Monday's Virginia Senate session, Sens. Janet Howell (D-32nd) and Chap Petersen (D-34th) denounced the use of riot police, SWAT teams carrying automatic weapons, police dogs and helicopters in response to what they called peaceful protests in Capitol Square.
Protest groups have gathered several times at the square this session in the wake of legislation aimed at limiting abortion rights.
On Saturday, 31 protesters were arrested — mostly for trespassing or unlawful assembly — on the state capitol steps following a women's rights rally. Prior to some of the arrests, protesters were monitored by a fully armored police SWAT team carrying automatic weapons, riot police, and police dogs, the senators said.
"They were chanting, 'Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!' And it was! Peaceful demonstrators going to the seat of government to express their views. In this case, they were marching and chanting for women’s rights," Howell said. " And what did they force? SWAT teams, state police in full riot gear, police armed with semi-automatic guns, and dogs, dogs! Not since the massive resistance days in the '60s have I seen such a disgraceful display of excessive police presence in my state."
And it wasn't the first time, Howell and Petersen said from the floor Monday: On Feb. 20, protesters gathered on the capitol grounds for a silent protest and rally to defend women's rights. They were monitored by riot police, a police helicopter, and "countless uniformed and plainclothes officers." No incidents were reported.
On Feb. 27, protesters holding a candlelit vigil to 'Take Back the Night' on public property outside of the Governor's Mansion were responded to by a fully armed SWAT team carrying automatic weapons as well as an armored police vehicle.
"Since the very first day of this session, things have been going seriously awry.
On Jan. 10, Virginia had a well-deserved reputation as a moderate, pro-business, civil, and peaceful state. But now ... our state capitol is becoming an armed garrison. Peaceful demonstrators are being intimidated and arrested," Howell said on Monday.
The senators put responsibility for the response on Gov. Bob McDonnell's office; the governor's office said it was not involved in making those decisions.
"The governor played no role in the security response and was not at home at the time of the protest," Press Secretary Jeff Caldwell said. "The governor does not play any role in directing security at the Capitol."
The office did not offer comment on whether they thought the response was appropriate.
Capitol Police led efforts Saturday, assisted by Virginia State Police.
Capitol Police could not be reached for comment.
VSP Spokeswoman Corinne Geller said the department "routinely supplements security at the State Capitol and surrounding state buildings any time there is a gathering of significant size and population. Our presence is simply to ensure the safety of all individuals on the State Capitol campus — event participants, state employees, public officials, tourists, etc."
Petersen said the right to protest was fundamental to Virginia's identity, regardless of whether the views expressed by protesters are shared by those on the Capitol.
"Would we permit our wives, our sisters, our mothers and daughters to be treated this way in our homes? In our communities? I speak not as a State Senator, but as a man who is the son of a Virginian, married to a Virginian and the father of Virginians. It’s not right to see our Virginia women treated this way. We are a free society. This is a public square. People have a right to protest, without harassment or intimidation," Petersen said.
Tell us: Were the riot police, SWAT teams put in place necessary for safety around Richmond, or, was it "an overreaction by the Governor's office?" Leave a comment below.